Almost Heaven: Leadership, Decline and the Transformation of New Vrindaban

BY: SUN STAFF


Feb 15, CANADA (SUN) — Published in Novo Religio, February 2006, Vol. 9, No. 3.

An interesting new article on the history and ongoing life of the New Vrindaban community has been published in the Nova Religio journal. Written by E. Burke Rochford Jr. and Kendra Bailey, "Almost Heaven" presents an academic view of the New Vrindaban phenomenon.

As described in the article Abstract: "An important if underdeveloped focus of scholars interested in the fate of new religions is in the factors that influence their success, decline, and failure. Among the factors most critical to the development of new religions is legitimate authority. We describe how a crisis of leadership authority at New Vrindaban, a renegade Hare Krishna community in West Virginia, brought about an exodus of community residents, financial decline, conflict, and the ultimate transformation of the community's mission. Findings from a 2003 survey are presented to assess how the community's membership has responded to New Vrindaban's transformed purpose as an institution of pilgrimage."

While it falls short of providing a substantive philosophical understanding of the history of New Vrindaban, Rochford and Bailey's paper will provide devotees with a clear idea of how the academic world views the circumstances surrounding the rise and fall of New Vrindaban.

The authors clearly attribute New Vrindaban's success to external circumstances like Kirtanananda's charisma, and the motivation that goes along with such charismatic leadership. What the authors call "charismatic", however, the devotees understand to be empowerment. Rather than attributing Kirtanananda's fall to mundane factors, as the authors do, we understand that Kirtanananda lost his spiritual potency because he disobeyed the orders of the Sampradaya Acarya and ceased to please him. Consequently he lost all protection, and we have seen the predictable results.

As academics, Rochford and Bailey would never dare to present New Vrindaban from this angle, but in fact the philosophical version is the source of real truth on the matter.

In one of the opening paragraphs, the authors give us a preview of the overall tone of the paper:

    "New religious movements emerge in response to charismatic leaders preaching a new revelation or spiritual insight. Yet, charismatic forms of leadership are noted for their volatility. In trying to preserve their authority in the face of pressures toward routinization, charismatic leaders may set off a chain of events that increase the potential for insurgency and even violence. This article describes and analyzes how a crisis of leadership authority at New Vrindaban brought about an exodus of community members, financial decline, conflict, and the ultimate transformation of the communityís purpose. Today New Vrindaban is fragmented and struggling to survive, even while serving as a place of pilgrimage for many Indian Hindus."

In this paragraph, the authors indicate their erroneous attribution of New Vrindaban 's success as stemming exclusively from Kirtanananda, the charismatic leader. Here and throughout the paper, the significance and importance of the Sampradaya Acarya, Srila Prabhupada, gets little or no mention.

It may be true that the New Vrindaban devotees thought the charisma Kirtanananda had was due to his actually being connected to the disciplic succession through Srila Prabhupada. They may well have believed that everything he was doing and saying was authorized by Srila Prabhupada and in fact, he had gained a certain amount of charisma as an individual due to that connection. However, as soon as the devotees felt that Kirtanananda had become disconnected from Srila Prabhupada, many left. They could no longer motivate themselves to perform the kind of austerities he demanded of them. While he may have initiated the Temple of Gold project as a memorial to Srila Prabhupada, he was later exposed as having a different motivation.

Kirtanananda was not only exposed as a sexual deviant who propagated criminal activities, he also changed the Sampradaya Acarya's original program to give it a 'Christian' spin. Many of the devotees left because they no longer felt that he was connected to Srila Prabhupada. Instead, he wanted to be the Acarya. The authors of "Almost Heaven" have essentially presented this phenomenon on the mundane platform, ignoring the spiritual phenomenon that was of the greatest importance.

For one who never lived at New Vrindaban but visited many times throughout the 1970's and 1980's, the only knowledge that may be culled from this paper will be a few of the interim historical events that may not be widely known. Most of these facts, however, are common knowledge.

The authors display a scholarly vocabulary and undoubtedly used a formal methodology for extracting information via surveys, interviews, etc. Their conclusions are expected to be academically accurate and verifiable on the mundane platform. They do not, however, address the essential spiritual issues. One of the most important spiritual facts behind this story is that Kirtanananda offended the Spiritual Master by disregarding and subverting his plan and system for executing his mission.

In a sense, Kirtanananda was the original Zonal Acarya, and he was operating as a Zonal Acarya even prior to Srila Prabhupada's departure. The only missing element from his early activities was that he didn't begin giving diksa initiation until after Srila Prabhupada departed. In fact, all the other Zonal Acarya 's essentially envied Kirtanananda because he wasn't a GBC at all, even though he held the title. He was really the maha-Temple President of New Vrindaban.

Kirtanananda was renowned for never leaving New Vrindaban except to go to India, or on a short excursion to satellite temples that continued on after Srila Prabhupada's departure. Many of his disciples were serving in Eastern Canada, where they formed a majority at both the Toronto and Montreal temples. The only way they could associate with Kirtanananda was to go to New Vrindaban, which was driving distance away. When they visited him, as soon as they arrived at New Vrindaban a lot of pressure was put on them directly by Bhaktipada and his inner circle, who wanted them to defect and stay in West Virginia. On the occasions when did visit other temples, he lobbied to sell the temple buildings and move everyone down to New Vrindaban, maintaining only small preaching centers in the cities. It made no difference to him that the Montreal and Toronto temples were among the first set-up after Srila Prabhupada arrived.

Of course, this strategy put him in direct conflict with the Temple Presidents, who had to deal with the fact that their temples were being supported primarily by Kirtanananda's disciples. Behind the backs of the disciples, the Temple Presidents had to negotiate with the GBC, Bhaktipada and his New Vrindaban staff. They had to avoid giving the appearance to the disciples in the temple that there was any disagreement, since that would have left the devotees even more vulnerable to being convinced to move out of the temple and down to New Vrindaban, which many of them did anyhow. Many valuable members were lost in this way.

Kirtanananda would often openly criticize the householder Temple Presidents for not being GBCs, sanyasis or diksa gurus themselves. In due course, the GBC replaced him with Gopal Krishna Swami, but it was too little and too late. While the Eastern Canada temples weren't sold, the Temple Presidents had become so discouraged that they left their positions.

The impact created by Kirtanananda can be seen in similar leaderless scenarios at many North American temples. In fact, this is that case at nearly all the temples impacted by the Zonal Acaryas. Unless the Zonal Acarya himself lived in the temple community full time and became the defacto leader, (i.e., the Temple President), then the temples started to dry up in the same way New Vrindaban did. People left, not being motivated to sacrifice and dedicate their full life energies for the purpose of maintaining the temple, which is synonymous with preaching Krsna Consciousness. By and large, the siksa gurus at many temples who were dethroned by the Zonal Acaryas were never replaced, leaving a vacuum of leadership that continues on to this day.

Of course, ISKCON has never tried to adopt any of the academic survey or study methodologies that the authors of "Almost Heaven" have employed. The due diligence they put into the microcosmic circumstances of New Vrindaban is far greater than that which ISKCON has focused on the smaller temples, which are undoubtedly less infused with drama than the bigger-than-life New Vrindaban community.

In conclusion, much of the content in "Almost Heaven" is written for academics, and much of the historical overview is filler or 'old news' to the devotees. The authors wind up their paper by re-emphasizing the theme expressed in the following paragraph, from the paper's 'Summary and Conclusion':

    "This study has demonstrated how New Vrindabanís founder Kirtanananda Swami lost legitimacy resulting in mass defection, the loss of vital sources of funding, and goal transformation. New Vrindaban faced decline and possible failure precisely because Kirtanananda and the community he led lost legitimacy in the eyes of the membership. It may only have survived because the community was able to create a niche for itself by becoming a place of pilgrimage for Indian Hindus. In so doing, however, New Vrindaban essentially gave up the task of sustaining a viable residential community."

Kirtanananda is referred to as the "founder" of New Vrindaban, and the authors indicate that his loss of legitimacy was due to external circumstances rather than to his loss of spiritual connection to the source of all spiritual energy, namely our Sampradaya. From the philosophical standpoint, this represents the paper's fatal flaw.


"Almost Heaven" can be purchased online by visiting:
http://caliber.ucpress.net/doi/abs/10.1525/nr.2006.9.3.006



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